The Fallacy of the Google Age
As a leader, your first responsibility is to lead yourself. You begin with how you develop your thought process, and continue with how you map your learning and your actions. You cannot afford to outsource your self-leadership or to abandon your intuition, judgment, and you cannot afford to contract out the diligent work of your own reflective inquiry and development.
My call to action here is inviting you to practice mindfulness as a leader and as a parent, to recognize the fallacy of the Google age and to reflect on the learning you encourage and promote.Here is a question for you. How many Google searches do you perform on a regular day? Well, during one recent work day, I decided to answer my own question, so I kept count. At the end of the day, I discovered that I had conducted 24 Google searches. I love Google. How can you not love what Google enables us to do? Here is the point though: every good development invariably creates unintended consequences. The fallacy of the Google age is one of these consequences. Before we put the laser on this challenge, let me make the broader statement.
Listen Episode 15: The Fallacy of the Google Age
Every age brings its technological innovation and progress. Every wave of innovation creates new possibilities and capabilities, which in turn give rise to mistaken beliefs.
For instance, the innovation of antibiotics initially catalyzed the belief that we were about to eradicate all diseases. The fantastic discovery of DNA promoted a deterministic DNA-centric mental model that postulated that people are defined by their DNA. This belief still is prevalent, even though epigeneticists subsequently showed that what gets expressed from our DNA potential is determined by the collective impact of the environment, formative experiences, and behavioral and life style choices.
Furthermore, the deterministic DNA-centric belief fails to recognize the broader significance of the psychological and spiritual dimensions of life such as their power and impact on our health, well-being and on our capacity to respond to opportunities.
When we retrace and reflect on human progress as a species, sometimes we appear to be following the allegorical story of the man next to a street light, searching for the keys he had lost. When asked if he felt he dropped the keys right there next to the street light, he replied, "I'm not sure when or where I lost my keys. Perhaps it was down the street or even on a different street. But it is easier and more convenient to search the area illuminated by the street light."
As a species, we are a bit like that man. We develop antibiotics and think they will solve all our health issues. We discover DNA, and rush to believe we've unlocked the complete secret to life and all its mysteries. Clearly both discoveries represent important developments, and yet neither one of them can answer all of humanity's health problems.
These examples provide a great segue to reflecting on the Google fallacy, which I should perhaps better name the fallacy of the Google age.
To better appreciate this particular misunderstanding, let's look at Google's mission. Google was born back in the late 1990s, when many people believed that all of the world's knowledge was going to be available on the web. Its founders recognized the opportunity to organize that knowledge and make it widely accessible. Google's mission statement was and still is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." This mission statement was coupled with the company's vision statement: "to provide access to the world's information in one click." These are excellent mission and vision statements because of their clarity. Indeed this mission and vision guided Google's business effectively to focus on its search engine service because they are concrete and clear.
More broadly, Google's mission has been viewed and widely represented in the idea of organizing all the world's knowledge, diluting a little the distinction we must make between information and knowledge.
This meme of organizing all the world's knowledge was initially developed in the early 20th century by Paul Marie Otlet, a Belgian entrepreneur, considered one the fathers of information science. Otlet wrote numerous essays and two books about how to collect and organize the world's knowledge. Google was in the right place at the right time to bring this idea to life.
Today we all are the beneficiaries of Google's service. Indeed, most of the world's information and knowledge is a click away. Where is the problem? What, then, is the Google fallacy?
The fallacy of the Google age is the belief that people are able to access every level of knowledge on any topic or question immediately.
Why is this a fallacy? What's left out of the equation? What forms of knowledge not captured by the search engine's algorithms are endangered by mindset propagated by Google's search prowess?
My premise is that the mental model enabled by Google - which is that everything you want to know is just a click away - is costing people some of the defining markers of our humanness.
It allows us to get by superficially, it makes us lazy, and it facilitates the loss of reflection and concentration power. We are at risk of abandoning the joys of inner discovery, of striving to resolve unresolved mysteries. And, we are at risk of making mediocrity the new norm. When we relinquish the power of the depth of development knowledge acquired by persistent struggle and personal application, we lose some of our humanity.
Are we raising new generations of digital natives who discover Wikipedia and Google long before they experience the wonder of the outdoors, or learn to climb a tree, swim or ride a bike?
Here are five dimensions and buckets of knowledge that cannot be re-created or explained fully by Google or Wikipedia or any app. Each of these buckets must be accessed by other means and from other sources.
Bucket 1: Experiential knowledge: Can you remember your first outdoor adventure? Running in the open fields, climbing trees, hiking up a mountain to reach an alpine lake; scuba diving to discover the beauty of coral reefs. Can you recall these experiences, and the unbridled joy of engaging the elements? In this case the knowledge source is letting nature teach your body what you can and cannot do.
There is much more in the experiential knowledge category, such as discovering the versatile capabilities of your hands to dismantle and reassemble almost anything, to draw, to knit, to cook, and to fix what's broken. Could it be that this fallacy we are bringing into focus is putting the adventurous discovery inherent in these activities at risk of disappearing or dramatically weakening? These are questions to reflect on as leaders and as parents.
Consider this: what are the chances of young people today to explore romantic love before they have been cheated out of its natural discovery by the misleading images propagated through all forms of media that are more likely than not to leave most people feeling inadequate? The contents of the experiential knowledge bucket are clearly being threatened by the intensity of this immersive exposure. I am obviously not blaming Google or the media with all the ailments of society and how superficial we have become, I am simply observing what the case is so we can choose as leaders and parents to be alert.
Bucket 2: Character learning and knowledge: My most formative character learning and knowledge at the age of 11 was acquired during the three years I got up every morning at 5 AM for my long distance running practice before school started. This regular and consistent practice taught me about determination, commitment, focus, overcoming pain, and the rewards of hard work. It enabled me to win the Israeli long distance cross country running championship at age 14.
This kind of knowledge cannot be imparted through Wikipedia or Google because it is an interior character knowledge. You have to discover and fashion this formation on the inside, and find out what commitment and determination feel like, to let the struggle steel your mind and instruct your soul.
Bucket 3: Concentrated focus and contemplative discovery: Important breakthroughs in science and in the arts were made possible by people who isolated themselves with a question and were able to mount tremendous focus and concentration on finding its answer. Are we losing this focused concentration with the never-ending noise of devices and digital alerts designed to trigger, to hack and to hook our brains with dopamine reactions?
Discovery through contemplative inquiry always has been central to the human experience. Take it away and you remove more than half of our arts. These natural capacities and processes are at risk too. Why concentrate and contemplate if you can Google search and get an answer in seconds?
Whatever happened to the defiant search for originality? The search engine premise is that all you can ever experience is a derivative and what someone else already felt, experienced and thought. Sure it's obviously the case in 99% of the human experience, and yet we are interested in the one percent originality and genius that you can bring forward, that one percent that is not searchable on the web.
Bucket 4: Intuitive knowledge: Intuition is central to our humanness, and to our inventive and innovative breakthroughs. The sixth sense, the sense of being guided, the capacity to listen to our inner voice is at risk too. In fact it is at risk twice.
Here is why. First, when you know you can find answers to your questions readily through Google, there is a temptation to cease listening to our intuition, to abandon the courage to seek the instinctive and intuitive guidance inside.
Second, our creative innovation is diminished by extraordinarily persuasive external pressures to fit into existing categories and behavioral and thinking templates.
Socialization is a process that acts a bit like a dog in training. Though some might disagree with this analogy, if you look and compare the two situations, you will find that the protocols of dog training and the rewards for social success follow a similar principle. That realization leaves us wondering, if we are the dogs, then who is the master? The price we pay for taking these risks is the loss of creative intuition.
Bucket 5: Development knowledge: This category represents knowledge acquired and fashioned by self-application and by the development it fosters through the refinement of achieving mastery in a given area.
Think about the knowledge acquired by Missy Franklin and by Katie Ladeky in the swimming pool. Think about the knowledge found by Itzhak Perlman through the violin, by Yo-Yo Ma with his cello and by Renée Fleming with her voice.
In the process of achieving mastery in one's craft, there are million insights into self-awareness, self-management, psychology, preparation, peak performance attunement, overcoming adversity and challenge, resilience and persistence, discordance and inner harmony. These experiences represent what we call vertical knowledge because it lives and is accessed at different depths. I am talking about knowledge that cannot be acquired by just clicking on a mouse. It is only achieved with 10,000 hours of practice or perhaps 50,000 hours of practice.
I once attended a concert by Mstislav Rostropovich toward the end of his life. As he played the Antonín Dvořák cello concerto, I sensed a distinct feeling in the concert hall that his bow was moving effortlessly by itself. It was as though someone or something had taken over the playing, and Rostropovich was the vessel. This is not "clickable" knowledge. Such a rare form of knowledge and mastery - a pure musical communion manifesting through the cello - can be observed in pioneers and thought leaders in almost every field.
For example, there is development knowledge acquired by a passionate teacher who shows up to class every day with the thought, "Today I might inspire the student who will solve the climate or energy conundrums, or cure cancer or any other major problem, their love and dedication lead them to new and creative ways of teaching. Or consider the entrepreneur who starts a company and leads it from its inception to a thriving enterprise, needing to overcome million obstacles and to reinvent herself along the way. I bet you have rare development knowledge that you fashioned in your professional journey. It extends beyond the information you carry in your head.
What then is the other facet of the Google fallacy?
The thought and the mental model that believe all forms of knowledge can be accessed instantly. We would be wise to realize that certain forms of knowledge require preparation to fashion the "vessel" to be ready to receive and contain the knowledge.
Here is a scenario for your reflection: when you go for a swim in the ocean you put on your swimming gear. When you go snowboarding or when you climb Mount Rainier, you are not likely to show up with the swimming gear. Instead, you will use a snowboard for snowboarding and you will dress well and have the technical equipment you need to summit Mount Rainier.
The same logic applies in the workplace when you inquire into the various fields of knowledge, especially non-academic fields such as leadership, sales, innovation, as well as inquiries related to parenting and relationships. Each of these conversations requires and would be tremendously enhanced by an appropriate set of tools, mental models and frameworks. Of course, you can try to summit Mount Rainier with your swimming gear, but it is not certain you will come back alive.
We call ourselves the sapient species. The question is: are we indeed becoming wiser or are we dumbing-down ourselves and losing some of our humanness?
As leaders, mentors and parents, we must explore daily the question of how we can enable experiential knowledge. How do we facilitate character learning and knowledge? How do we inspire knowledge acquired through focused discovery? How do we encourage intuition and development knowledge?
That's the work of leadership in the effort of fostering and promoting a new more enlightened and capable generations in the future.
© Aviv Shahar